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De’Aaron Fox Isn’t An All-Star, But He’s Taken The Leap

Beginning with the 2006-07 season, the Kings have wandered a toilsome road, owners of the second-longest playoff drought in NBA history. In that time, Sacramento has been led by 10 head coaches, finished fourth or worse in the Pacific Division 11 times and missed the playoffs in 14 consecutive seasons. This stretch has amounted to arguably the lowest point in the franchise’s existence.

Enter fourth-year guard De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento’s speedy centerpiece.

Leading the team with a career-high 22.5 points per game, Fox has grown from fifth overall pick in 2017 to credible All-Star snub. Key to Fox’s rise has been his knack for timely buckets. Though he stands just 6-foot-3 and weighs under 200 pounds, he has cast a tall shadow during late-game situations this season, enough to rank sixth across the league with 64 clutch-time points, per NBA Advanced Stats.

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Ironically enough, it was after his finest performance as a pro that Fox reflected on his perceived shortcomings. While Sacramento’s 19-point comeback bid against New Orleans fell short on Jan. 17, Fox recorded a career-high 43 points and dished 13 assists, two shy of his NBA best. By reaching those marks, he became the franchise’s first player to drop at least 40 points and 10 assists since Tiny Archibald nearly 50 years ago.


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“When we cut the lead down, that’s when your player needs to step up and make a play,” Fox said, though he scored 10 points with no turnovers in the final frame. “And I don’t think I really did that tonight when the game was really tight.”

Though Sacramento took the loss that night, both Fox’s production and introspection provided early validation of the team’s decision to secure him long term with the richest contract in franchise history last offseason ($163 million). According to his agent, Chris Gaston, the value of Fox’s deal escalates if he earns an All-NBA first team ($196 million), second team ($183 million) or third team ($170 million) nod within the deal.

There’s a lot of basketball to be played before such accolades actualize, but Fox’s growth in Year 4 has illustrated his trajectory as Sacramento’s leading man. For his Tiny-esque efforts against New Orleans, he was named Western Conference Player of the Week for the first time in his young career.

Fox’s efforts are crucial to Sacramento’s journey out of the NBA’s cellar. From 2006 to 2020, the Kings’ .362 win percentage ranked ahead of only Minnesota. Both teams are among just six to go at least a decade between playoff appearances. In the Timberwolves’ case, they snapped their drought in 2018 only to make consecutive lottery appearances since. Such is just another layer of the challenge behind restoring an NBA team’s vigor, especially with today’s transient talent pool.

The Kings are closing in on an unwanted record

NBA teams with the most consecutive seasons missing the playoffs in league history

Team Seasons Years Win % During Drought
Los Angeles Clippers 1977-91 15 0.339
Sacramento Kings 2007-20 14 0.362
Minnesota Timberwolves 2005-17 13 0.343
Golden State Warriors 1995-2006 12 0.349
Phoenix Suns 2011-20 10 0.385
Dallas Mavericks 1991-2000 10 0.303

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

For Sacramento, the team’s collection of coaches, draft-night miscues and free-agent misses have coalesced into lulls no franchise would want to replicate. Since their last playoff appearance, the Kings have produced just one All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins, whose 2016-17 selection remains the team’s most recent. While centerpieces are pivotal, franchises can’t flesh out a credible identity without role players to fill respective gaps.

“It takes a lot, it ain’t easy,” Fox explained about growing as a leader. “You can talk about what you did in high school, in college, but this … you have to take it to a totally different level if you want to be one of those guys in the league. Guys ask about leadership — it’s much more than being able to score the ball. It’s much more than just being able to get an assist, get guys in the right position.”

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Key to Fox’s point has been the efficacy of Sacramento’s best five-man lineup, which is rounded out by Tyrese Haliburton, Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes and Buddy Hield. Overall, the Kings rank just 28th in net rating this season (-5.8, per NBA Advanced Stats), but that number hikes to +16.3 when those five share the court — and when Fox is sitting, the other four players combine for a net rating of only -22.0. Through Wednesday’s games, only the Warriors, Jazz, Trail Blazers and Clippers sport better five-man units among those to play at least 100 minutes, providing further validation of Kings hoops trending in the right direction.

The Kings have one of the NBA’s best rotations

Top 10 five-man NBA lineups during the 2020-21 season by net rating with a minimum of 100 minutes played together

TEAM LINEUP NET rating
Warriors Curry • Green • Wiggins • Oubre • Looney 30.3
Jazz Bogdanović • Gobert • Ingles • O’Neale • Mitchell 21.4
Blazers Kanter • Lillard • Covington • Jones • Trent 21.0
Clippers Ibaka • Batum • Beverley • George • Leonard 20.4
Kings Barnes • Holmes • Hield • Fox • Haliburton 16.3
Jazz Conley • Bogdanović • Gobert • O’Neale • Mitchell 15.1
Sixers Green • Harris • Curry • Embiid • Simmons 14.6
Suns Paul • Kaminsky • Booker • Bridges • Ayton 14.0
Lakers James • Gasol • Davis • Schröder • Caldwell-Pope 13.9
Bucks Lopez • Middleton • Antetokounmpo • Forbes • DiVincenzo 11.6

Through games of Feb. 24.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

That said, there remains room for improvement. Hield, who tested positive for COVID-19 last year,1 is on pace for the worst shooting season of his career. After showing signs of recapturing his form in January (41.7 percent on 3-pointers), the 2020 3-Point Contest winner has seen a double-digit dip this month. Beyond Hield’s shooting woes, though, remain the Kings’ issues of depth beyond the promise of Haliburton, the franchise’s latest lottery pick.

The Kings appear to have struck gold with the 20-year-old Haliburton, who boasts a 62.0 true shooting percentage and trails only LaMelo Ball among rookies in assists per game (5.4). Despite no training camp or Summer League to aid his NBA transition, the first-year guard out of Iowa State has provided ample flexibility for Sacramento’s rotation. For Fox, it has allowed him the freedom to roam without the ball more often.

As a result, Fox is shooting a career-best 55 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, good for ninth among 242 qualified shooters, per Second Spectrum. Over his first three seasons, Fox shot just 34 percent on such attempts, so it’s good for the Kings that he’s learning to find buckets without dominating the ball. When surrounded by the threat of Hield’s spacing and Haliburton’s playmaking, Fox is better suited to present a threat from both the perimeter and paint.

In an adjustment to the shortened offseason, the recently engaged 23-year-old trained with his fiancee and former Texas Tech starter, Recee Caldwell. Fox recently credited his recent growth to those sessions.

“Obviously I’m in the gym, and she’s in the gym with me,” he explained to The Athletic. “She’s, you know, a part of the workouts. So, we’d have whatever our workout was, and then we’d eat, come back, and then most of the time it would just be us two. And we’d try to get to 400, 500 just threes made. It was catch-and-shoot, off-the-dribble, stepbacks. Whatever you kind of see me doing in games at this point is stuff that we worked on all summer — or, this shortened summer.”

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Such strides were on full display on Feb. 7, when Fox lit up the Clippers by scoring 12 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter. By the buzzer, Sacramento had secured its fourth win in a row. More broadly, by notching seven wins over an eight-game stretch, the Kings did something they hadn’t done since 2006.

“His speed and quickness really hurt us,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said of Fox afterward. “He was able to attack us all night and get into the paint and cause havoc.”

Fox’s play against L.A. encapsulated Sacramento’s go-to approach when things are tough: Trust the money man. In those clutch-time situations, over a game’s final five minutes with a margin of 5 or fewer, Fox is tied for the NBA lead with 36 points in the paint, per Second Spectrum.

These skills are what prompted Sacramento to draft Fox in the first place, and his gifts are finally being weaponized against teams that could become playoff foes down the road. For now, though, the Kings’ most practical competition resides wherever the West’s lower seeds are within reach. Some of those teams (Golden State, Denver and Dallas) have playoff hopes that rest on All-NBA shoulders, but the Kings, after finishing three games out last season, are growing more confident in where they place theirs.

“I think he’s proven that he’s taken that next step,” Haliburton said about Fox on the night of his Tiny-esque effort. “And I think he’s been an All-Star this year. He’s playing like one, no question. He’s our leader.”

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Footnotes

  1. As did Harrison Barnes.

James Jackson is a Florida A&M graduate from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Currently with ESPN, he has covered the NBA since 2014, with work featured on ESPN.com, NBA International and SB Nation, among other platforms.

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